Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bias to the poor!

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that sheep and shepherds have a lot to answer for when it comes to the heart of the Christian faith.

And it’s not just because sheep are so cuddly and shepherds so comforting!

Maybe it was because David who was to become the great King of Israel started out as a shepherd, whatever the reason, ,through the Old Testament the kings came to be thought of as the shepherds and the people the sheep.

In some ways it was a long experiment … and in the end it was an experiment that failed.

All too often power went to their heads and the kings failed the people.  From the very outset one of the great early prophetic figures sensed it.  The people wanted a king just to be like all the other nations.

But (1 Samuel 8:6) this did not please Samuel.  To bring in what might be described as an anachronistic reference to another cuddly creature:  Samuel was not a happy bunny.

So he prayed to the Lord and the Lord said to Samuel:

‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

Wow, quite some indictment.

And the tragedy was that most of the kings let power go to their heads – and if power corrupts then the absolute power they sought corrupted absolutely.

And first the Northern Kingdom imploded and succumbed and the ssame happened to the Southern Kingdom.

The Kingdom collapsed, the people were exiled.  And by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept.

Maybe recalling what the voice of the Lord had said to Samuel so long ago, Ezekiel it was who put his finger on what had gone wrong.

It was down to the Shepherds.  Not those comforting ones who looked after the cuddly four legged frolicking beasts.  The kings.

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

Another guy who spoke forthrightly to those people as they sat down and wept even had the name of one of those ancient prophets, Isaiah.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have all turned to our own way

But all was not lost.

For the voice of the Lord had something to say to the people and Ezekiel was sure of it … it was the most wonderful of visions.

thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

The years passed.  The people returned.  But the Kingdom didn’t reappear.

Not for quite some time.

The Babylonians fell to the Persians they fell to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Egyptians and the Syrians – and one guy got the reputation of being something of a hammer – he struck a hammer blow for freedom and Judas Maccabaeus said he was King.  But all the same problems reared their ugly heads as power passed to his descendants.

And then came the Romans.  Herod the great might have called himself King but he was in hock to the Romans and injustice remained.

Then it was that something began to stir.- Wise Men from the East saw a king was to come – and irony of irony it wsa the shepherds who the babe born in a stable first.

The prophetic voice of John was heard in the wilderness and then he came into the waters and out of the waters and into the towns and villages of the north and what was his message?

It was the Good News – the kingdom was upon them.   A sea change was needed in the hearts of everyone for the Shepherd was here.

It was the Good News – the kingdom was upon them.  A sea change wass needed in the hearts of everyone.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

It is no coincidence that in three key chapters in Matthew, in Luke and in John Jesus tells stories about The Shepherd.

They are not just cuddly, lovely children’s stories, though they work brilliantly in that way as no doubt we share with everyone of our children in one way or another.

When Jesus talks about Shepherds and Sheep he is talking about what is at the heart of the Christian faith – and it’s all about the Kingdom of God,  the rule of God and the difference that rule makes in the most down to earth ways.

John 10 leaves you in no doubt at all as Jesus talks about the contrast between the thieves who break in to steal and the Good Shepherd who goes to the extreme and lays down his life for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.

I have this hunch that just as talk of the Kingdom was at the heart of Jesus’ message, so too he loved the stories he told of sheep and shepherds.

Want to know what Church means look up Matthew 18.  And the measure Jesus chooses for what it means to be church – is the littlest of children.  Welcome a little  child and you will welcome Jesus.

Child-Friendly Church is not an add-on it is what Church is about.

And to press the point home he tells the story of the Shepherd seeking out the lost sheep so that his hearers can be in no doubt “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

It’s basically the same story.  And it’s easy to imagine it is.  But in Luke’s Gospel when you get to chapter 15 and find that story again it works in a very different way.

Now it gets to the heart of the Gospel – Luke 15 has been called the Gospel within the Gospel.

It’s not about church, children and welcoming Jesus in the face of the littlest child.

It’s about who you ear with.  Who you open your table to.

Jesus was for ever getting in trouble for the company he kept at table.  Great to have a meal with the Pharisees – but to give his attention to the man who was sick with palsy???!!!  Hare-hitting stories about wedding banquet and who sits at the top table – and the welcome that’s there for all.

It’s all about welcoming the poor, those who can’t get around, who can’t see, who can’t walk, who have nothing.

And the well-to-do religious people cannot stomach it.

People caught in the Roman occupation, people who were outsiders they were all getting Jesus’ attention – mixing with the lowest of the low.

The thing is Jesus is living out what he had said he would do right at the outset in the synagogue at Nazareth.  His concern is for the poor, the outsider, the disadvantaged, the prisoner, the ones who cannot see.

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

So … it was in response to this accusation.  It was in response to this.  That Jesus spoke.

And the story that came to mind was this wonderful story of the Good Shepherd.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

 So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

The climax of the story, the punch line is about the feasting – the rejoicing – the joy in heaven.

This is the task.

It puts right to centre stage making a difference in people’s lives.

Mission and Outreach – not an add on but at the heart of what we are about.

Then there’s the woman who seeks until she finds that most precious of coins.

And the Father who waits and waits until the moment his son returns.

You can boil it down to what counts most …


Lost and Found!
Feast and Festivity!
Choice and Change!
Righteousness and Justice!
The Heart of the Gospel!

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